My sons and I took advantage of a (between engagements) week together to get away from computers and futzing around the house and take a road trip. We saw museums! We ate at places we’ve wanted to go but were a bit too far for a practical trip, just for a 30s-style slider, even for me! And we got a fantastic guided tour of one of the great food stops of the South— the privileges of being a journalist with the ability to work your connections and status to get to see cool things you’re interested in. Here’s what we did:
I’m not a car guy, I think I changed my own headlights once, so when I say that I nearly wept at the beauty of the restored Art Deco vehicles in the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Indiana, it’s less for the cars than for the elegance of a lost era of American style replaced by one successively hideous or simply dull decade after another. (If you want to make a Studebaker Avanti look like crap, put it at the end of a room that goes from Duesenberg to Corvette.) It’s hard to believe cars like these once went over the roads— they look like Roger Rabbit props, impossible to believe things so exquisitely styled roamed ordinary streets:
Okay, maybe not so ordinary, since the one above belonged to Hollywood producer/Jean Harlow husband Paul Bern, of mysterious and tragic end fame.
The museum is actually in the old Auburn Cord showroom, with dazzling terrazzo floors— again, it all looks more like an 90s Batman set than something that could have ever been real life in America. How did we fall from such an ideal? Why did people not see the pinnacle we had reached and work to stay there?
Other buildings in the former factory complex include other museums, which is to say, other car collections, and one of them had this rarity— a Valentine diner, a prefab diner sized to fit on a truck, manufactured in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas in the 40s and 50s. Very few survive, and this is surely the best restored one.
Not a Valentine diner, but surely a fitting dinner afterwards, was Powers’ Hamburgers in Fort Wayne. We sat at the counter next to the tiny grill as the freshly made, don’t-mention-White-Castle in the same breath burgers were cranked out:
As Myles said after, “I guess I’ve never had a good slider before.” No, probably not, and it was particularly fun to be able to tell them that this is basically what the 5-cent burgers recently revealed on the façade of the former La Pasadita on Ashland were like, since they’ve been fascinated by that bit of urban archeology. History lives, even if it’s been hunted to ground.
We stayed the night in Indianapolis and hit the Children’s Museum, just enough of it still interesting to my older kids, with the help of a traveling exhibit about Avatar’s special effects and fake biology/anthropology (which one might question the appropriateness of in a more serious museum to begin with, but this is more like attic full of interesting junk). We had done that museum on an LTHForum road trip almost a decade ago, and so we couldn’t resist basically the same lunch we had then:
Pastrami at Shapiro’s, a great century-old Jewish delicatessen.
On to Louisville, where despite not needing to see brisket again for a few weeks, I somehow wound up finding it irresistible to order at Milkwood, the newest restaurant from Edward Lee, located in the basement of the Actors’ Theatre building. The room is borderline charmless— it’s a bit like the basement beer hall in a student union— but that ceases to matter when you taste Lee’s Southern-meets-artisanal-meets-charcuterie-meets-contemporary food. I could compare it to Trenchermen for porky quirkiness, or to Carriage House for new take on Southernness, but I kind of found it more satisfying than either, more deeply rooted and yet freer with Southern flavors. I especially liked octopus bacon, which was somehow a cured octopus dish:
and, as noted, brisket served with hunks of biscuit, milk gravy, barbecue sauce, grilled mortadella and pickles.
Sounds like too much, but it worked, like nearly everything did— including the blueberry cobbler dessert with sorghum ice cream, which I liked enough to recreate when I got home.
We didn’t do that much in Louisville, partly because of a big thunderstorm that canceled plans to walk around downtown and sent us to a movie theater… which had a Skyline Chili nearby. Eat way too many Coneys and you get your picture taken; however, look at the record-holder closely before you decide to challenge him:
I first heard of Newsom’s Country Hams, one of the great Kentucky country ham makers, in the book Pig Perfect. The business is carried on by Nancy Newsom Mahaffey in the cute small town of Princeton, and I contacted her a week before my trip about the prospect of doing an audio segment for Airwaves Full of Bacon… not quite realizing that even speeding it was 2-1/2 hours from Louisville to Princeton. I got my very tolerant kids up early and we hurried down there. Anyway, we got to the old country store-slash-artisanal food market that is what the original grocery is today, and sampled both their “preacher ham” (typical modern “wet” ham, good enough for the preacher) and then the prosciutto, which is what’s on the scale above. The standard country ham wasn’t available that day, but after chatting for a while, she took us to the various places where the hams age— one of which is still in her parents’ backyard:
I don’t want to give away too much of what will be in that upcoming Airwaves Full of Bacon podcast, but I have to make mention of the most fascinating, and terrifying, part of our tour. The whole ham business started with her grandfather simply making a few on the side for his neighbors, back in the 20s or so. Today, she makes them in much larger quantities, but there’s still an “on the side for neighbors” aspect of the business: if you want your ham to age further, she’ll keep it hung after you buy it for another six months or year, during which time it will grow a spectacular Rip Van Winkle beard of deathly gray fuzzy mold. (The government doesn’t care; once it’s been sold it’s your business how it’s handled.) I’m sure it’s good inside there, and picking up all kinds of fantastic umami flavors, but… it’s hard not to look at that and shudder.
We didn’t come away with one of those hams, but I came away with all kinds of unexpected treats, from the sorghum I used in that ice cream to Kentucky butter cream candies, which are the most insanely rich thing ever, to corncob jelly (not sure what it is, but couldn’t resist).
From our tour of the ham caves we went to another cave, Mammoth Cave. My wife and I had gone in the traditional entrance years ago, so the kids and I took a different entrance, recently fixed up and reopened, which started with a 400-step descent down 250 feet below the earth.
I mentioned that I had miscalculated how far it was from Louisville to Princeton. I felt bad about the itinerary I stuck the kids with that day— almost exactly as much driving as our return to Chicago would be— but in fact they loved this day, between the hams and the caves (and they laughed about still smelling like ham fat and smoke in the cave). That was nice, that my day of indulgence in foodie stuff went over just fine with them, and in fact prompted a comment from Liam after all of Nancy Mahaffey’s hospitality: “Why are Southerners so nice?”
We drove back to Indianapolis in the morning, making one more foodie stop— Gnaw Bone Sorghum Mill, another spot selling things like sorghum and corn cob jelly, along with ancient videotapes and paperbacks, chainsaw-carved art and some odd souvenirs. Road Food calls it “Worth driving from anyplace”; maybe the fact that I had just stocked up on these things at Newsom’s prejudices me but my evaluation would be more like “Just barely worth the 15 minute detour from I-65 if you’re bored.”
In Indianapolis we came full circle by visiting another car thing— the Indy 500 museum, including taking the bus tour of the actual track (kind of cool to be on it, but the landmarks were all unknown and meaningless to me). By far the best part was the display of about one third of the winners over the years, including the very first one, which allowed you to see the evolution of race car design over time. The obvious place to eat was another Road Food fave, Mug N Bun, a nice if not world class carhop joint a few blocks from the speedway, and a fitting end to a trip bookended by vintage cars and burgers, with Southern food and caves in the middle.
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By the way, I’ve started contributing to Serious Eats Chicago, no particular agenda but trying to write about places a million miles from the places that everybody writes about on the food scene at the moment. I’ve had two pieces so far; read about an unknown Italian beef here and a piece about Chill Cafe (previously posted on at my blog) here.